In the art of cinema there is a very thin line between the many things a person involved in this business can do. In today’s world few people are just actors, just directors, just screenwriters etc. In many cases the director’s seat has been the ultimate goal; many screenwriters evolve into director becoming auteurs (writing and directing) and of course, actors are drawn to this profession to prove their artistic value.
Directors are probably the ones who foray the least into other territories. They sometimes produce or write a movie leaving the director’s seat to somebody else but this list will talk about the times when directors decide to act. It is very common for directors to have a cameo in their own movies. Sometimes they even give themselves large, or even lead, roles in their own movies (Woody Allen, Spike Lee etc).
But the real leap of faith is when directors take on acting parts in movies that are not directed by them. Of course, not all directors can act, because it is not their job to do so, but occasionally they will surprise us with a truly great acting performance that is not self-guided. Here is a list of 20 great acting performances by directors in movies other than their own. The list is chronological.
1. Orson Welles in “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1949)
It is impossible to talk briefly about Orson Welles. This man had successful careers as a director, actor, writer and producer and worked very successfully, in three entertainment mediums: the theater, the radio and film. In theater he gave us the groundbreaking Broadway adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, in radio he was so convincing with his broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” that people actually thought that Martians are invading the Earth.
As for his work in film, who has never heard of “Citizen Kane”? “Citizen Kane” (constantly cited as one of the best films in movie history) was written, directed and acted by Orson Welles.
As he got older, his careers flourished and his versatility broadened. Apart from his own project, Orson Welles found the time to appear in other directors’ works such as Mike Nichols’s “Catch-22” and Matt Cimber’s “Butterfly”. But, probably, his best work as an actor is one of the leading roles in Carol Reed’s masterpiece “The Third Man”.
The plot of the film concerns an out of work pulp novelist by the name of Holly Martins who travels to post war Vienna after receiving a job offer from his friend Harry Lime. Upon his arrival he discovers that his friend was killed days earlier in a peculiar traffic accident. From talking to Lime’s friends and associates Martins soon notices that some of the stories are inconsistent, and determines to discover what really happened to his friend.
Holly Martins is played by legendary Hollywood actor Joseph Cotten while the mysterious Harry Lime is played by Orson Welles. Welles’s character is an important piece of the film’s puzzle as it holds the key to solving the shady mystery. Welles is perfectly cast as his distinct stature and voice give his character the assets needed to create the noir atmosphere of the film.
“The Third Man” is universally praised as one of the greatest films ever made and part of its success can safely be attributed to the acting skills of polyvalent Orson Welles.
2. Vittorio De Sica in “The Earring of Madame De…” (Max Ophuls, 1953)
The name Vittorio de Sica will always take the cinephile to the world of Italian Neo-Realism. He is the author of classic films that transcend their genre, such as “The Bicycle Thieves” or “Umberto D”. But the truth is that Vittorio De Sica was equally comfortable acting as he was directing.
He appeared in both Italian and international films. He appeared in high praised Italian films such “Pane, Amore e Fantasia” or Rossellini’s “Il Generale Della Rovere”. He was even nominated for an Academy Award, in the best supporting actor category, for his role in the 1957 version of “A Farewell to Arms”. However, his most versatile acting role is considered by many to be that of Baron Fabrizio Donati in “The Earring of Madame De…”.
The film is directed by Max Ophuls and it is adapted from Louise Leveque de Vilmorin’s period novel of the same name. The film’s central character is Madame Louise whose surname is never given. Madame is married to a general and because of this she is spoiled. Her expensive lifestyle amasses considerable debts. In order to settle some of her debts she decides to sell her large diamond earrings – a present from her husband.
As luck will have it – after a series of temporary owners – the earrings are purchased by Italian baron Fabrizion Donati who falls in love with Louise, after a series of chance encounters. De Sica plays the Italian baron with a class and style that you would have expected from someone like Luchino Visconti (a descendent of a noble family).
He is firm and full of pride but often displays a romantic and even funny side to him. It was noticed that some viewers could not get over the fact that De Sica (an advocate for the rights of the lower classes) plays a noblemen but this move, on the director’s behalf, is just out to prove what a fine actor the Italian director really was.
3. Victor Sjostrom in “Wild Strawberries” (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Unjustly, when people think of Sweden in cinema they think of Ingmar Bergman. But before the great Bergman, there was Victor Sjostrom. Sjostrom was a respected director of the silent film who began his career in Sweden before moving to Hollywood in 1924. His films (including many adaptations of the works of Selma Lagerlof) are often viewed as masterpieces of the silent era.
Sjostrom found it very uncomfortable to direct talking films so he returned to Sweden and began acting in theater. By the time talking films took over Sjostrom’s career and reputation was gone. Still, he lives on in the collective conscious of the cinephile thanks to his final acting performance in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Wild Strawberries”.
Bergman wrote the screenplay for the film while hospitalized with nothing to do but ponder over over philosophical themes such as introspection and human existence. He had nobody else in mind for the lead role than his silent film idol and early counselor Victor Sjostrom.
The plot of the film is extremely simple but it engages many dark themes such as nightmares, guilt and the cruelty of old age. Thus, the film becomes a philosophical introspection of grouchy, stubborn and egotistical professor Isak Borg. Isak (played flawlessly by 78 year old Victor Sjostrom), is a widowed old physician who specialized in bacteriology.
One day he sets out on a long car ride from Stockholm to Lund to be awarded an honorary degree from his old University. He is accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne, who does not like him and is planning to separate from her husband, Evald, Isak’s only son. Evald does not even want to have the baby.
During the trip Isak’s is confronted with his life mistakes – many of which he sees in his son – and is forced to come to the terms with the consequences his cold, distant life has led too. Sjostrom’s face is perfect to illustrate that heartbreaking regret that comes with old age. You could almost read the disappointment on his expressions and speech patterns.
It’s like Sjostrom’s cannot cope with the changes that took hold over the world of cinema just like Isak cannot cope with his old age and the changes in his life.
4. John Cassavetes in “Rosemary’s Baby” (Roman Polanski, 1968)
In today’s world, John Cassavetes is viewed as a visionary director who changed the face of cinema with his minimalist approach. Back in the day, Cassavetes struggled to get his films made and to his own admission, he did not think that they would have an afterlife. He did not believe in using big Hollywood stars in his movies, which was why it was hard for him to find founding for his numerous projects.
But, with a little help from friends and supporters like Martin Scorsese, he left behind a large body of work in both the directing and the acting category. Cassavetes was a wonderful actor and he kept acting parts in films and television even when his career directing career of. He acted in most of his movies, in episodes of popular TV Series, such as “Colombo”, but he also took on an important role in Roman Polanski’s horror cult classic “Rosemary’s Baby”.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is the second part of Polanski’s informal apartment trilogy (the trilogy started with “Repulsion” and ended with “The Tenant”). It is a horror film but it is not flashy or filled with gore because it does not need to be. It delivers the thrills of a horror film just by inducing the state of confusion and fear into the viewer’s mind.
It features great acting performances from Mia Farrow as Rosemary (one of her few great roles outside the Woody Allen films), Ruth Gordon (who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress) and John Cassavetes. Cassavetes plays Rosemary’s husband (Guy), a struggling actor who is about to become a parent alongside his estranged wife.
The couple move into an old building in New York City despite warnings of the previous owner going mad. Although the couple has not been so close lately, the husband suggests they should have a baby. On the night, they plan to conceive the baby they have chocolate mousse that they feel tastes a little funny.
Rosemary passes out and experiences what she perceives to be a strange dream in which she is raped by a demonic presence in front of her husband and the other tenants. When she wakes up, she finds scratches on her body. Guy tells her that he had sex with her while she was unconscious because he did not want to pass up the moment for her to conceive. And now Rosemary is going to have baby but the question of the father remains; is it her husband or is it Satan himself.
Cassavetes has no problems in playing the careless husband concerned over his artistic career who is then mortified of the fact that her wife might be carrying the baby of Satan. He is 100% believable and whoever sees the film will always remember his performance as being top notch.
5. John Huston in “Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974)
John Huston was to cinema what Ernest Hemingway was to literature; a rebel, an adventurer and a highly sensible artist. Before becoming a director, he had been an amateur boxer, reporter, short-story writer, portrait artist in Paris, a cavalry rider in Mexico, and a documentary filmmaker during World War II.
To continue with the literary analogies one can say that Huston’s family was like the Mann family, with numerous members actively participating in the world of movies (father Walter was an actor, daughter Angelica, sons Tony and Danny, grandson Jack are all actors).
Huston’s most important films were adaptations of important novels, often searching for heroic virtues in his characters. Because of his love for literature, he was often criticized for not having a style of his own but rather adapting to the tone of the material. He is often excluded from the elitist auteur list because he did not write his own original scripts and his style wasn’t very clear.
Despite the belief that his name and reputation overshadowed his work, Huston’s career was stellar and his name will forever be linked to quality movies such as “Treasure of Sierra Madre”, “Maltese Falcon”, “The Man Who Would Be King” or “Under the Volcano”. Coming from a family of artist it was no surprise that John Huston could act. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” was the perfect showcase for his acting abilities when he was cast as the movie’s villain.
“Chinatown” is a neo-noir masterpiece and it is considered by some to be Polanski’s magnum opus. The story involved sleazy private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who is hired by a beautiful woman named Evelyn Mulwray to carry out surveillance on her husband, engineer Hollis Mulwray. Gittes follows Mulwray around and takes photographs of him and his mistress, then sells them to the press.
Things get very complicated when the real Evelyn Mulwray shows up at Gittes’s office threatening him with a lawsuit. Soon after Hollis Mulwray is found dead Gittes realizes that this case is above him and that he is way over his head in a bigger conspiracy but decides to investigate the case anyway. After a series of plot twists Gittes’s sources lead him to Mulwray’s business associate and father-in-law Noah Cross; an unscrupulous, calculated old man.
Huston plays Noah Cross with a villainous refinement. Noah Cross is not the maniac-type…on the contrary; he is suave, his voice is deep and polite and his manners are top class. This is the kind of villain that John Huston gives us in “Chinatown”; a respectable man of the community that holds a terrible secret and that is more ruthless than any maniac on the street.